The most well-known Ethiopian instruments are the krar (ክራር) and the masinqo (ማሲንቆ). But, since everyone and their second cousin is probably already familiar with these, we’re going to mix things up a little bit and introduce some of the lesser-known instruments first. (If you are not familiar with krar and masinqo, don’t worry, I will also introduce them in due time.)
Let’s start with a musical instrument popular in Gambella region, in Western Ethiopia on the border of South Sudan: the thoom (may also spelled thom, toom, or tom). Ethnomusicologists refer to this as the lamellophone, or you may have heard it called the “thumb piano.” There are many variations on this instrument in East Africa.
Metal strips are attached to a wooden soundboard, and you press your thumbs on the ends of the metal to produce sound. The particular instrument pictured above also has metal rings around some of the keys to produce a buzzing sound for added aesthetic value.
Here’s the thoom in action, performed by an Anywaa player:
The metal keys can be moved up and down to change the tuning. According to Lim Chuol, a Nuer musician in Addis Ababa, they are usually tuned pentatonically and can have from 12-18 keys. There is technically no minimum or maximum number of keys, however, and, in fact, expert players continue to add more keys to their instruments, because, well, why not?
The Anywaa sometimes call the lamellophone “thoom Otieno,” named after a man named Otieno who lived many years ago. Otieno was well-known in the Anywaa kingdom for being talented in metal-working. Of course, metal is necessary to make the keys for the lamellophone, thus the instrument was named after him. “Otieno” means “spider”: just as spiders are good at creating webs, so Otieno was good at metal-working.
Malakat / Waza / Bol
These terms all refer to a type of trumpet that is especially popular in southern Ethiopia among several different ethnic groups. While each area likely has its own variants, I have not located sufficient research to disambiguate the differences, so I’m just providing a general introduction to this “genre” of instrument, if you will, and providing some sound and video examples of how they are used among different groups. Malakat is the term used in Ethiopia, waza in Sudan, and bol (or bal) is the term used by the Berta people (who live in both in West Ethiopia and Sudan. Confused yet?) It’s likely that there are still more terms that people use according to their own language.
These instruments are made from organic materials such as calabashes and are cut to different lengths to produce different pitches. The longest ones can be quite large, taller than your average human being. Since each one produces one pitch, they are played in a group using a hocketing technique.
As used by the Wolayta people:
As used by the Gofa people:
Fila (or filla, or philla)
The fila is used by the Dirashe people and has some similarities to the malakat in that they are played in a hocketing technique.
The masinqo is a well-known instrument throughout central and northern Ethiopia, and you hear it frequently in Amhara and Oromo music. It is a one-stringed fiddle and is the instrument of choice for the azmari, solo singers who often work in bars and are exceptionally talented at improvising lyrics and melody on-the-spot. It is also a core instrument of cultural bands that work in government theatre houses and cultural restaurants. This video of Alemayehu Fanta playing gives you a good idea of the sound and playing technique (and demonstrates the different kignit, as well):
Things to note in the recording: extensive use of ornamentation, the masinqo doubling the vocal melody when he sings, lack of equal-tempered tuning, and use of harmonics. These aesthetics are quite typical of music in these regions.
The krar, a bowl-lyre with 5-6 strings, is another well-known instrument in both Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. The krar is also a core member of the cultural band and is an instrument of many variations. The electric krar is now standard fare in many urban settings, as well as the bass krar (which sounds much like an electric bass.) Playing technique also varies. Alemayehu Fanta (featured above) emphasizes a plucked playing technique, and this is also the technique discussed by Ethiopian ethnomusicologist Ashenafi Kebede. However, in urban settings, I see players utilizing instead a variety of strumming techniques, muting strings with their fingers in order to obtain a defined melody. Yahalem Nod Negussie, krar player at YOD Abyssinia, even plays the strings with his cellphone sometimes to vary the timbre. Also, some people are starting to add strings to the krar.
Clearly, it is a bit difficult to discuss the “standard” krar and its playing technique with so many variants proliferating in Ethiopia at the moment. Generally, however, it is played with the left hand, and it is tuned pentatonically (and must be retuned if the player is switching to a different kignit.) If the krar has 6 strings, the remaining string is tuned in an octave to the tonic note (e.g. in tizita, it would be C D E G A C).
Here is an example of the krar playing using the plucked method:
And, for all you Bob Marley fans out there, here is a krar cover of “Get up, Stand up” (in English and Amharic).
Incidentally, this singer (Temesgen) has an entire album of covers of songs from the western hemisphere and also has online krar lessons(!) and his very own 10-stringed krar. If you like krar, I highly recommend checking out his website (http://www.temesgen.com/home) and YouTube channel.
Also, no discussion on krar can possibly be complete without mentioning Asnakech Worku, the late and well-loved singer, krar player, and actress from the mid-2oth century. Here she is (using both plucked and strummed playing techniques) on one of her most well-known songs, “Ende Yerusalem”:
The washint is an end-blown flute, popular amongst sheepherders. In the past, there was no standard length or number of finger holes, since shepherds usually made these instruments themselves and used them for personal entertainment, not for playing together. Now, however, urban musicians have adapted them to be able to play with other instruments in bands. Normally, a washint player has several different instruments in order to play in the different kignits. However, this might be about to change. Tewodros Bogale, washint player at Circus Ethopia and YOD Abyssinia, recently developed a washint with 12 holes that can play in any kignit. The holes that he is not using, he covers with tape to change the tuning.
Like the Turkish ney, the washint is played while held at an angle to the mouth. Observe this demonstration (at 1:34 in the video):
Known as the Harp of King David, this instrument has 10 strings and a distinctive buzzing sound created by the string vibrating against the instrument body. This instrument is almost exclusively associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and is used for personal meditation and prayer. These songs are known as mezmur, an Amharic term used specifically for religious music (as opposed to zefen, which refers to secular music.)
*** This page is under construction and is still growing. We have a LOT more instruments to cover, so keep checking back!